Don’t bet against the West!

In July 2007 US President George W. Bush hosted Vladimir Putin for informal talks at his summer house in Kenneb­unkport, Maine. The family atmos­phere was completed by the presence of his father, former President George Bush. Photo: Imago Images

The US tried to integrate Russia with the liberal inter­na­tional order, but Putin destroyed the basis for coop­er­a­tion by disman­teling democracy and seeking domi­na­tion of his neighbors, writes Dan Fried.

Starting with the Admin­is­tra­tion of George H. W, Bush until Putin’s war against Ukraine, the United States generally sought to support the inte­gra­tion of post-Soviet Russia (and even the USSR, in its final year under President Mikhail Gorbachev) with the liberal inter­na­tional order of which the US was principal founder after 1945. That meant devel­oping good bilateral relations with Russia and, to the degree possible, encour­aging Russian part­ner­ship in inter­na­tional affairs including against terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The US advanced this policy with two condi­tions, however. First, the US did not recognize a Russian sphere of domi­na­tion over its neighbors and former satel­lites in Central and Eastern Europe; and, second, the US pred­i­cated its Russia policy on that country’s continued evolution in the direction of democracy and the rule of law.

Portrait von Dan Fried

Dan Fried is a retired US diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2005 to 2009. Between 2013 bis 2017 he headed the US Office of Sanctions Coordination.

Those US condi­tions were generally accept­able to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, espe­cially in his early years of better health. They were not accept­able to President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Putin had his own condi­tions for better relations with the US: these included US acqui­es­cence to Russia’s attempts to dominate its neighbors, espe­cially Ukraine and Georgia, the two countries most committed to finding a place in Europe and its insti­tu­tions; and US accep­tance of Putin’s deepening auto­cratic rule at home, the tactics of which included assassination.

The rise and fall of US-Russian relations from a high point of hope in the early 1990s to a return to a hostile, adver­sarial rela­tion­ship between not just Russia and the US, but between Russia and almost the whole of Europe and North America is a result of the incom­pat­i­bility of these views of Russia’s place in the world.

Notwith­standing arguments that the US humil­i­ated Russia after 1991 (arguments that echo but without much basis the case that rough treatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles was partly or even largely respon­sible for the rise of Hitler), the US did not seek to isolate, punish, or otherwise treat Russia as a defeated foe. The US did not seek to impose repa­ra­tions on Russia; it provided assis­tance. The US did not shun Russia’s new lead­er­ship; it reached out to them. And Boris Yeltsin reached back. In a speech to a joint session of Congress in June 1992, Yeltsin spoke of Russia, through its own efforts, having ended “seventy-five years of [communist} nightmare,” thanked the American people “for their invalu­able moral support,” committed himself to free-market, demo­c­ratic reforms, and promised that Russia would never again lie in foreign affairs.[i]

Western critics often cite NATO’s decision to accept for member­ship Poland and other newly liberated countries in Central and Eastern Europe as an original sin that alienated Russia by “drawing a new line in Europe” (as opponents of NATO enlarge­ment often put it). In fact, US policy on NATO reflected its deter­mi­na­tion to end the Stalinist division of Europe. Rejecting the push for NATO member­ship from Poland, the Baltics, and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe would have meant perpet­u­ating the line of the Cold War into the future, tacitly recog­nizing a Russian sphere of domi­na­tion in Europe and signaling to Moscow that the US and Western Europe in fact regarded the former captive nations of Europe as in some sense property of Moscow, to be reclaimed when possible. Those of us making the case for NATO enlarge­ment from inside the Clinton Admin­is­tra­tion and later in the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion were aware of this; in retro­spect, given Russia’s attack on Ukraine, its claims against that country, and official demands for NATO with­drawal from its eastern flank members, the decision to allow addi­tional European countries to join NATO seems even more justified.

NATO enlarge­ment was not the whole story, however. The US sought to integrate its support for NATO enlarge­ment with its inclusive policy toward Russia. The decision to enlarge NATO was made in parallel with an effort to develop a NATO-Russia rela­tion­ship, an “alliance with the Alliance” as some of us in the Clinton Admin­is­tra­tion put it at the time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a document concluded in 1997 before NATO’s decision to offer member­ship to Poland, Czechia, Hungary. The Founding Act not only estab­lished a NATO-Russia structure to support common actions and decision making, it set limits on NATO’s deploy­ments in Europe by eschewing “addi­tional permanent stationing of substan­tial combat forces.” This commit­ment by NATO — made in parallel with an unspec­i­fied Russian commit­ment in the Founding Act to exercise similar restraint in its deploy­ments — was intended to reassure the Kremlin that NATO enlarge­ment would not be followed by a massive buildup akin to the stationing of US, British, and other forces in Cold War West Germany. Indeed, NATO enlarge­ment was accom­pa­nied by a steady with­drawal, not buildup, of US forces from Europe to the point where, on the eve of Putin’s war against Ukraine in 2014, there were no US tanks stationed perma­nently in Europe.

The Admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush sought to deepen part­ner­ship with President Putin, starting with their famous meeting in Slovenia in June 2001. This meeting followed Bush’s Warsaw speech which signaled US intent to continue with NATO enlarge­ment.[ii] That signal notwith­standing, the Bush-Putin meeting went well. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Putin seemed prepared for deeper strategic part­ner­ship, with counter-terrorism and strategic arms control leading elements. The Bush Admin­is­tra­tion responded with enthu­siasm and several good years of relations followed, with some achieve­ments in counter-terrorism and arms control.

Bush’s decision to continue NATO enlarge­ment even to the Baltic States (a decision made at the Prague NATO Summit in November 2002 shortly before the US decision to attack Iraq) did not derail this US-Russian coop­er­a­tion. Like the Clinton Admin­is­tra­tion, the Bush policy toward Russia included an element of “hedging.” Even in the 1990s, the Clinton Admin­is­tra­tion had urged Europe to avoid energy depen­dence on Russia and had cham­pi­oned alter­na­tive, non-Russian energy projects for Europe such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The Bush Admin­is­tra­tion continued this policy even as it built its relations with the early Putin team.

What soured US-Russia relations were Putin’s decisions to advance his author­i­tarian control at home, starting by destroying inde­pen­dent tele­vi­sion in Russia, and, espe­cially, Putin’s reaction to what he perceived as US insti­ga­tion of the pro-Western “Color Revo­lu­tions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, respec­tively. The Bush Admin­is­tra­tion started, slowly and unevenly, to realize that Putin’s disman­tling of Russian democracy meant that, as President Bush observed at the time, Putin might not be the reform-minded leader we thought and hoped he was.[iii] Putin, in true Stalinist fashion, assumed that the US was behind the Color Revo­lu­tions. He was mistaken — Georgia’s Rose Revo­lu­tion and Ukraine’s Orange Revo­lu­tion reflected genuine home-grown political forces and surprised the US – but Putin seemed convinced that the US had broken his condition of US acqui­es­cence in Russia’s domi­na­tion of its former Soviet posses­sions and, with that, the basis for coop­er­a­tion with the US was gone.

Putin’s hostile, anti-US and anti-Western speech at the February 2007 Munich Security Confer­ence reflected his new assess­ment of US policy as incon­sis­tent with Putin’s view of core Russian interests. This clash – Russia’s insis­tence on and US resis­tance to Russia’s domi­na­tion of Georgia and Ukraine in partic­ular – inten­si­fied as the US sought to gain NATO consensus on a NATO Member­ship Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia at the April 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit. That effort failed – the Alliance was divided over that question – but the consensus reached included a NATO statement that Ukraine and Georgia would even­tu­ally be members of the Alliance. That in turn seemed to infuriate Putin, who in a speech at the Bucharest NATO Summit (at the NATO-Russia Council portion held the day following the Summit proper), laid the basis for a Russian claim of Ukraine’s Crimea territory.

The Bush Admin­is­tra­tion still sought to maintain good relations with Russia and, imme­di­ately after the Bucharest Summit, Bush and his team flew to Sochi for a meeting with Putin and newly-installed temporary President Dmitry Medvedev. But Putin no longer appeared inter­ested in coop­er­a­tion with the US. Instead, he provoked a war with Georgia in August 2008, after which the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion acknowl­edged the failure of its efforts to work with Putin’s Russia[iv].

The Obama Admin­is­tra­tion, despite the Russo-Georgian War, sought to return to the early Bush assump­tions that some short of part­ner­ship with Putin’s Russia was possible. To this end, it launched the “reset” with Russia based on the same Bush team assump­tions: that there was room for part­ner­ship with Russia even given US condi­tions about Russia’s neighbors and human rights and democracy within Russia. Like the Bush policy, the Obama Reset yielded some initial results, partic­u­larly in strategic arms control.

But, also like the Bush policy, the Obama Reset fell afoul of Putin’s deepening author­i­tar­i­anism at home and aggres­sion against his neighbors. Putin’s manip­u­la­tion of Russia’s 2011 elections provoked demon­stra­tions inside Russia and criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Putin appeared to be infu­ri­ated by this. In Ukraine, Putin over­reached, not for the last time, when in late 2013 he forced his preferred ruler, Viktor Yanukovych, to break his commit­ment to sign a rela­tively modest Ukraine-EU Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement that had wide support in Ukraine. That led to demon­stra­tions in Kyiv that Yanukovych attempted to suppress violently, the “Maidan” named after the downtown Kyiv square where they took place. This set off an esca­la­tory cycle that ended with Yanukovych fleeing the country and a pro-European govern­ment assuming power.

As with Ukraine’s Orange Revo­lu­tion, Putin assumed the “Maidan” was US controlled. He responded within days by invading Crimea; when this succeeded against the disori­ented new Ukraine govern­ment, Putin escalated by launching “sepa­ratist movements” in the Donbas. The first phase of the Russo-Ukraine War was on.

As with the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion after the Russo-Georgian War, the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion realized after Putin’s attack on Ukraine that its outreach to Putin had failed. It shifted course, opting for sanctions against Russia as its principal instru­ment to resist Russia’s aggres­sion. The Obama Admin­is­tra­tion did not, however, provide arms to Ukraine, concerned that doing so would be futile because (as the argument went inside the Obama NSC staff) the Russians had “esca­la­tion dominance.” The sanctions, joined by the EU, combined with Ukrainian resis­tance on the ground, caused Putin to pull back from his initial expansive claims to vast parts of Ukraine. Putin started but shortly dropped claims to “Novorossiya” – vast parts of southern and Eastern Ukraine conquered by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century and even accepted the Minsk Accords framework nego­ti­ated with France, Germany, and Ukraine that acknowl­edged that Ukraine’s Donbas region, effec­tively occupied by Russia, was in fact, Ukrainian territory.

But Putin had no intention of honoring the Minsk Accords and, by late 2015 at least, it became clear that Russia was not taking the Minsk nego­ti­ating process seriously. Instead of esca­lating, the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion allowed sanctions to plateau and did not respond strongly even to Russian inter­fer­ence in the US 2016 Pres­i­den­tial elections until after those elections were over. The US had dropped its objective of outreach to Russia but had not fully replaced it with a policy of resisting Russian aggression.

The Trump Administration’s Russia policy was incon­sis­tent, even inco­herent. On the one hand, capable foreign policy experts, espe­cially the NSC’s Senior Director Fiona Hill, State Depart­ment Assistant Secretary for Europe Wess Mitchell, and Treasury Under­sec­re­tary Sigal Mandelker main­tained the Obama Administration’s sanctions pressure on Russia. The Trump Admin­is­tra­tion even started sending modest amounts of weapons to Ukraine (while restricting their placement). But President Trump himself, and many of his ideo­log­ical supporters in and out of govern­ment, seemed to admire Putin as a like-minded strongman and looked at Ukraine as a political irritant, something that led to Trump’s first impeach­ment. This vitiated US pressure against Putin.

The Biden Administration’s foreign lead­er­ship was composed of people who had been on the more hawkish side of the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion debates about Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Under­sec­re­tary Toria Nuland). Never­the­less, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion sought to avoid a clash with Putin’s Russia, opting instead to seek a “stable and predictable” rela­tion­ship. That was the message from the Biden-Putin Geneva meeting in June 2021. This was no reset, as with Obama in 2009, but an effort to park the US-Russia rela­tion­ship at a low but sustain­able level the better to focus on China policy. The US condition was modest: that Putin refrain from esca­la­tion in Ukraine.

As it turns out, Putin was having none of it. Without even a poor excuse, Putin built up his forces, made extrav­a­gant (and public) demands of the US and NATO, and, in February 2022, launched a full-on invasion of Ukraine. The Biden Admin­is­tra­tion had cautioned Putin, first in private and then in public, not to invade. When he did, the Biden team chose to support Ukraine, including through provision of arms (slowly at first, perhaps assuming that Ukraine could not withstand a deter­mined Russian assault). Strate­gi­cally, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion effec­tively ended the US policy of reaching out to Russia that had been in place since the late-1980s. The US began to regard Russia as a full-on adversary.

The US, France and Germany shared mistaken assump­tions about the possi­bility of working with Putin’s Russia

It is easy to parody the differ­ences between US and Polish policy toward Putin’s Russia on the one hand and the French and German approach on the other. During the Cold War, the US was generally (but not always) harder edged toward the Kremlin than either France or Germany and this differ­ence reemerged in approaches to Russia even after Putin’s 2014 attack on Ukraine. The French and Germans had more faith in the Minsk nego­ti­ating process to end the war in Ukraine than was justified. German energy policy rested on a misplaced convic­tion in the stabi­lizing effect of depen­dence on Russian gas; its invest­ment in the Nord Stream gas pipelines instead of LNG infra­struc­ture was a bad choice, belatedly recog­nized by the German government.

Never­the­less, the US, French, and German govern­ments for years shared many hopeful and ulti­mately mistaken assump­tions about the possi­bility of working with Putin’s Russia; all were reluctant to accept the conclu­sion that Putin was a dangerous and aggres­sive ruler close in spirit and many tactics to 20th century dictators. Polish govern­ments (as well as Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian govern­ments as well as others in Central and Eastern Europe), as it turns out, were right about the danger from the Kremlin and were not, as some Western critics patron­iz­ingly put it, “Russo­phobic” or “prisoners of history.” Still, Germany, France, and the US all joined in resisting Putin’s initial aggres­sion against Ukraine in 2014. None accepted Putin’s claim over Ukraine. The arc of US, French, and German Russia policies have run in rough parallel, moving closer to Polish assess­ments of the Kremlin.

German policy toward Russia has been upended and Germans are strug­gling with the magnitude of the policy reori­en­ta­tion needed to deal with Putin’s Russia as it is. Germany’s struggle to organize its foreign policy around different assump­tions about Russia and a different, more forward leading German role in helping Europe resist Putin’s aggres­sion, is painful, necessary, and familiar to Americans who have had to contend with their own policy failures in past decades.

Russia is a strategic adversary as long as Putin is in power

The US search for some “deal” with Russia to enlist it as a partner in managing the rise of China has been a persis­tent spec­u­la­tion that has led nowhere. With good reason. The precedent set by Henry Kissinger’s successful outreach to Mao’s China while pursuing détente with Brezhnev’s Soviet Union remain attrac­tive to some. Many in the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion (and many beyond it) expressed interest in making the effort.[i]

The problem arises as soon as a prospec­tive “deal” with Moscow takes shape: it always seems to involve recog­ni­tion of Moscow’s dominance over Ukraine and Georgia, and indif­fer­ence to human rights and the rule of law inside Russia, condi­tions no US Admin­is­tra­tion, not even that of Donald Trump, has been willing to accept. Some tacit under­standing over Ukraine might have been possible when Yanukovych was in charge in Kyiv. The US had accepted his election and Ukraine’s NATO aspi­ra­tions were going nowhere. Even after­wards, in the runup to the current phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Germany offered to maintain its effective blockage of Ukraine’s NATO aspi­ra­tions as a way to head off the Russian offensive. That wasn’t enough for Putin, who sought an end not just to Ukraine’s NATO aspi­ra­tions but to its inde­pen­dence. A deal with Putin over Ukraine would be near impos­sible under current condi­tions, given Putin’s esca­la­tion and the atroc­i­ties Russian forces have committed and continue to commit.

Moreover, Putin is committed to an anti-American course as strategy. Russia and China see common strategic purpose in combining to weaken the US and the inter­na­tional system it has cham­pi­oned. Efforts to entice Putin to change strategic course in favor of the US and at China’s expense would be futile and making the attempt would require aban­doning US strategic prin­ci­ples in a display of weakness, giving Putin a win he has not earned either on the Ukrainian battle­field or econom­i­cally, at least so far.

Russia is a strategic adversary and is seen as such by most govern­ments in Europe and the US, albeit with varying degrees of convic­tion. This will remain the case as long as Putin is in power. The current US Admin­is­tra­tion is clear on that point.

In the US, the hard left and – more worrying — the Trumpist right have sympathy for Putin

In US politics, support for Ukraine and for resisting Russia aggres­sion includes what is left of the Reaganite Right through the pro-inter­na­tion­alist center to much (not all) of the left. The left, histor­i­cally reluctant to support resis­tance to Kremlin aggres­sion, now includes many with an aversion to Putinism and supportive of Ukraine, thinking similar to that among many Greens in Germany.

Oppo­si­tion to this approach can be found among some on the hard left, who express an “anti-impe­ri­alist” approach with its origins in the 1970s that amounts to sympathy for many (and perhaps any) forces seen as reliably anti-American. These views are not strong or influ­en­tial. More worrying are views held by the Trumpist right that are outright pro-Putin and hostile to Ukraine. These views, cham­pi­oned by Fox media star Tucker Carlson, recall pro-fascist arguments of the late 1930s that prevailed in American rightist circles until the Japanese attack on the US in 1941. These views, once common, now almost forgotten, but revived by Trumpist circles, include sympathy for hard right, nation­alist strongmen, hostility to “cosmopolitan” Europe and US support for Europe, and cynical hostility to appli­ca­tion of values in foreign policy as weakening American freedom of action. These views overlap to some degree with those held by a small but influ­en­tial circle of foreign policy thinkers, some serious and scholarly, who champion “realism and restraint,” which in the case of Russia seems to come down to acqui­es­cence in a Russian sphere of domi­na­tion over Ukraine and other countries. The “realism and restraint” school, combined with the Trumpist right, appeals to a tradition in US foreign policy thinking often termed “isola­tionism” but in fact meaning a sometimes unilat­er­alist, value-free foreign policy based on trans­ac­tional rela­tion­ships with other great powers.

Milder versions of “realist” thinking had influence in the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion but generally did not prevail. This school has had even less impact on the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion but is making consid­er­able headway within on the right, e.g., the once-Reaganite Heritage Foun­da­tion think tank has shown more sympathy for Trumpist views and the Quincy Institute champions versions of “realist thinking.” (To be fair, other schools of realist foreign policy thinking have admirable records of achieve­ment: Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for President George H.W. Bush, applied many of the virtues of realist thinking, including oper­a­tional and rhetor­ical caution and restraint, in the 1989–91 period with spec­tac­ular results.)

Sanctions sceptics get little traction in the US

Support for sanctions against Russia often align with the cate­gories of foreign policy thinking discussed above: support is generally high among those inclined to support Ukraine and oppose Putin is and weak among the Trumpist Right, “realist” right and center, and hard left. The Trump Admin­is­tra­tion, however, was enthu­si­astic about sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, and even against Russia (to little effect, however, given Trump’s own sympathy for Putin that weakened their impact).

The debate about the use of sanctions has its own dynamic, however. Some econ­o­mists and economic policy special­ists worry about what they term sanctions overuse, including creating perverse incen­tives for rival powers, e.g., China, to break from the US dollar as the accepted inter­na­tional reserve currency and from the US-dominated inter­na­tional financial system. Thus far, however, those arguments have not gained major traction either within the US govern­ment or Congress. If anything, Congress has pushed for more intense sanctions against Russia.

The US and Europe defied predic­tions that their resis­tance to Putin’s Russia would fail

US support for Ukraine’s resis­tance to Russia’s aggres­sion has been persis­tent. Whether it will continue so in the face of Russian esca­la­tion, more severe economic dislo­ca­tions such as energy price spikes and/​or shortages, or a failure of European political support for a similarly strong approach is an open question, but the US and Europe have since 2014 defied persis­tent predic­tions that their support for Ukraine and resis­tance to Putin’s Russia would fail. I would not bet against the West.

 

Dan Fried is a retired US diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2005 to 2009. Between 2013 bis 2017 he headed the US Office of Sanctions Coor­di­na­tion. He was a speaker at the LibMod confer­ence “Russia and the West” in March 2022.

 

[i] Link to Yeltsin June 1992 speech to the US Congress: Boris Yeltsin “Address to U.S. Congress” Tran­script (speeches-usa.com)

[ii] Link to Warsaw speech: CNN.com — Tran­script: President Bush speech in Warsaw — June 15, 2001

[iii] Bush made this obser­va­tion to then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in October 2003 in a meeting in London in which I participated.

[iv] Link to Secretary Rice’s GMF speech fall 2008: Secretary Rice Addresses U.S.-Russia Relations at GMF | RealClearWorld

[v] I heard this a lot person­ally in the early weeks of the Trump Administration.


This paper was published with generous support from the German Foreign Office.

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